CONTROL part 2

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I mope aggressively but Dad is too busy studying the metal cone’s flashing display. With one touch, it accesses your info and account. Even if you can’t afford a magpod, a nasty public pod will come pick you up. If you’re a little kid, lost, a press of a finger brings a magpod that will take you to the police, your school, or home, depending on the time of day. They’re more reliable than the sun rising and setting. On cloudy days, even the sun lets you down.

It won’t be long before he confesses where we’re really going. Maybe it’ll be like Inky, where there’s a women’s uniform. Dyl will just love that to death. A neck-to-toe gray smock can’t be easy to accessorize.

Other magpods of varying size and luxury float by, hovering over the metal lines embedded in the road. A flashing 3-D sign across the street tells me I need the New and Improved SkinGuard to harden my soft self, in case any projectiles fly my way. If only I wanted to look like I was part insect.

I yank my no-slip (yeah, right) bra straps back onto my shoulders for the third time today. When there’s hardly anything up front to keep the bra in place, it defies the laws of gravity and rises up. Dyl, who’s younger by four years, is already my height and is destined to sprout a larger chest. Maybe by tomorrow.

A dull-looking magpod slows down in front of us, the color of old teeth and sporting a triangle-shaped dent in the back. I’ve never seen this one before, but like all the magpods we get, it looks old and stinky.

“Get your bags, girls. Let’s go.” Dad’s eyes are hooded and dark. His late nights working have etched deep lines in his face. I toss my bag into the back compartment. Maybe with this next job, he’ll have a better schedule. But who am I kidding? Doctors are always in short supply for those who can’t afford personal CompuDocs, which is half of the population. So no matter where we go, he’s crazy busy.

Dyl turns away from us, whispering to her mugshot of a friend. “Don’t forget your vitamins. And call me after the test. I want to know which poets they quizzed you on.” She finally shuts off her holo.

“You’re over your weekly holo hours anyway,” I tell her. “And remember to switch sides. Your neck is already getting twisted. Look.” I reach over to gently touch the tense muscles below her ear.

She straightens her neck and moves away from me. “I’m okay,” Dyl says, adding a tiny smile to dispel any meanness. She does that little side-stepping dance all the time now—keeping her distance, owning her space more and more. I know it’s normal for her age, but it hurts. She hasn’t let me hug her in weeks.

I jump into the driver’s seat before Dyl can protest.

“At least put it on auto, Zel,” she whines.

“Why? I like driving.” Most people put their mags on auto. Just punch in your destination and it goes. But going manual is so fun. It’s a dying art. You really feel like part of the magpod and sense its personality. All the magic of technology disappears, and it’s just you and the machine. No games, no illusions.

Thankfully, Dad’s deep in thought and doesn’t care about me driving today. Dyl tucks herself into the backseat and grabs a pen-sized styling tool from the mini salon stashed in her purse. She zaps a lock of dirty-blond hair into a perfect helix, then pauses to yawn, squeezing her eyes shut. When they open, she sees me still planted in the driver seat and wrinkles her nose.

“You know, nobody in school drives mags.”

“Well, L’il Miss Dyl Pickle, your friends aren’t here, so I can embarrass you all I want.”

Dyl’s face pinks up. “Don’t call me that. I’m not a kid.” She goes back to curling her hair, but won’t meet my eye. Her voice drops. “And you don’t embarrass me, Zel.”

I bite my lip. She’s trying not to hurt my feelings, but I know the truth, with the same certainty that I know the atomic number of oxygen. I’m a total embarrassment. My refusal to wear makeup, nice shoes, or tight clothes. My penchant for getting excited over CellTech News, my favorite holo channel. My endless nagging about her flashy dresses and too-shiny lipstick. She’s horrified of me.

I glance back at Dyl, whose head is now covered in romantic, drooping curls. She’s daydreaming of meat-for-brains boys, I’m sure. I turn to Dad.

“Okay. So where to this time?” I say, feigning a good attitude.

“Let’s . . . let’s go north. No, west.” I can almost hear the dice-roll of our future clinking in his brain. I don’t like it. I like having a plan, and Dad always has a plan.

“I’m hungry,” Dyl moans.

“We’ll get food later. After we leave town.” He looks behind us as we hover for a bit. I push the T-shaped steering bar forward and we zoom down the street, ensconced in our bubble of plainness. Inside the mag, there are no sweet treats, games, no mobile e-chef. Nothing. There isn’t anything to do but curl your hair, drive, or ignore your imminent future, like Dad is doing.

The other mags zip around us. The hum from the metal mag lines in the street is the only sound we hear. I’m concentrating so hard on swerving in and around the slower mags that my vision goes blurry around the edges. Dad touches my arm.

“Breathe, Zelia.”

And then I remember, the way I must remember hundreds of times a day. I suck in a huge breath, and then a few more big ones to make up for my distracted moments. My stupid affliction. Dad says it’s called Ondine’s curse. On its own, my body will only take a few piddly, shallow breaths a minute. If I don’t consciously breathe more deeply or frequently when I’m excited, or running, or doing anything besides imitating a rock, my brain won’t reflexively take over enough to keep me alive.

Just add it to the list of other annoyances in my life. The non-fatal ones, that is.

“Why don’t you just put on your necklace?” Dyl suggests. “It scares me when you don’t wear it.” She gives me a worried look, but it doesn’t convince me. My titanium necklace is safely tucked away in my pocket. When I wear it around my neck, the pendant signals an implanted electrode in my chest to trigger normal, healthy breaths every few seconds. It’s great for sleeping, since dying every night is quite the inconvenience. But during the day? It feels like an invisible force yanking the air in and out of my body.

“You know I hate that thing when I’m awake.”

When Dyl was little, she used to fetch it for me all the time. As soon as she’d leave the room, I’d take it off. It was a cat-and-mouse game we played. Now that she’s older, she respects my decision not to wear it when I’m awake, but she still brings it up every day. My heart dreads the day she stops reminding me.

“It would make life easier for you,” Dad adds. His fingers comb through my hair absentmindedly. After two seconds, his scuffed wedding ring gets tangled in the mess. “Drat.” After a tug and a small tuft of lost hair on my part, he’s free. Luckily, the subject has changed to how I inherited the frizz-fro that skipped a generation.

“You can borrow this, you know.” Dyl taps my head with her hair-styling pen.

Deep breath, I tell myself, so I don’t grab the pen and chuck it out of the magpod.

I twist the T-bar to maneuver around other mags, now that we’re in the center of town. The 3-D signs are everywhere, poking out from the sleek metal façades of the buildings, beckoning us to buy their wares. We drive under a giant holographic arm holding a purple fizzy drink the size of a trash can.

Another mag swerves a little too close, and I veer to the right with a jerk.

“Can you please put this thing on auto?” Dyl squeaks. She braces herself against the inner walls of the magpod to maximize the drama, while her curls bounce erratically. “I don’t want to break my arm if I’m going to join the fencing team in my new school.”

“You’ll be fine,” I groan.

“You should join me,” she says. “It’s harder to hit a small target like you.”

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